If you live in Thailand or even Southeast Asia, you’ve probably heard of Kaffir lime leaves. But even though the Thai and Asian food are becoming more popular in the United States over the last decade, for most Americans Kaffir limes and their leaves might still be a mystery. This article will unravel the mystery and clue you in on some of the best substitutes for kaffir lime leaves if you want to try your hand at Thai cooking.
What Are Kaffir Lime Leaves?
First of all, kaffir lime leaves come from the makrut lime plant. It’s a Southeast Asian shrub. The kaffir limes themselves, sometimes called wild lime leaves, are noticeably different from regular limes that you’re familiar with seeing in the grocery store. The name “kaffir” originates from the term “kafara” which means infidel. In some countries, the use of the word “kaffir” could be seen as a derogatory or offensive term.
Other Names for Kaffir Limes
- Jeruk-purut in Indonesia
- K-leaves in South Africa
- Limau purut in Malaysia
- Juuk purut in Bali
- Leech lime or Makrut in Thailand
The skin is bumpier, and the taste is more bitter than common limes. Because of the bitter taste, makrut or kaffir limes are typically used for cleaning products rather than for eating a traditional lime. The leaves are aromatic, a citrus and pine combination popular for cleaning products but they are in fact, edible if sliced thin and cooked first.
Kaffir lime leaves are typically thicker than many other herb leaves. If you look carefully at Kaffir lime leaves, you’ll notice one side is shiny and darker green whereas the underside is porous and a paler green. The form of kaffir leaves is shapely and resembles an hourglass. There are two leaves at the end of each stem, referred to as “double” leaves.
What Are Kaffir Lime Leaves Used For?
When it comes to Thai food and Southeast-Asian cooking, the kaffir lime leaf is a popular ingredient for many types of stir-fry, curry, and soup recipes. In fact, chances are if you’ve eaten Thai or Southeast Asian food in the past, it likely contained kaffir lime leaves. They are used quite frequently in coconut based recipes. When cooking with kaffir lime leaves, they are used like bay leaves in that they are cooked in the recipe and then often removed from food before serving.
When it comes to using kaffir, lime leaves or substitutes for kaffir lime leaves, a little goes a long way. One package of kaffir lime leaves will likely last you nearly a year or more. Fresh leaves can be stored in the freezer for up to six months or sometimes longer. When ready to use, remove the bag from the freezer, separate the number of leaves needed and run them under warm water to thaw and release the flavor.
How to Purchase Kaffir Lime Leaves
Kaffir limes leaves are available in a variety of forms including frozen, dried, or fresh. Most Vietnamese and Thai and some Chinese food stores will stock kaffir lime leaves. Look for fresh leaves in the produce section where you typically find other herbs or in the frozen section. Kaffir lime leaves are becoming more readily available, so you may be able to find them at some of the bigger grocery stores in the U.S. and even in Canada.
There have been some reports that kaffir lime leaves are becoming harder to find in the United States however due to the fact that the USDA has tightened restrictions on import regulations. If you have trouble finding them locally, try ordering them online. For those lucky enough to live in tropical climates, it is possible to simply grow kaffir limes yourself and harvest the leaves for your use.
Substitutes for Kaffir Lime Leaves
Most experienced cooks will tell you there are no perfect substitutes for kaffir lime leaves as they have a flavor all their own. The taste is similar to lime, more bitter as mentioned, but with more of a floral aromatic flavor.
With that said, there are a few different possibilities if you’re looking for the best substitutes for kaffir lime leaves:
Lime Zest is one of the best substitutes for kaffir lime leaves. Recommendations suggest the zest from just one lime as a workable replacement for 2 kaffir lime leaves.
Lime/Lemon Zest Combination
Lime/Lemon Zest Combination is also one of the suggested substitutes for kaffir lime leaves. The recommendation is, to begin with, 1 ½ teaspoons of lime zest and ½ tsp of lemon zest per one kaffir lime leaf. This can be adjusted to your taste preference of course.
Kaffir lime Essential Oil
Kaffir lime essential oil, just a few drops, added to the dish, not at the start, but closer to serving.
Calamansi or Kalamansi limes
Calamansi or Kalamansi limes are a cross between kumquats and mandarin oranges. These are also known as Chinese oranges, Panama oranges, or golden oranges. It’s definitely not an exact flavor match but in a pinch, it could work in some recipes.
Jarred Kaffir leaves
Jarred Kaffir leaves are available in some places if you cannot get access to fresh or frozen kaffir leaves. The leaves are typically in oil with a consistency similar to curry paste.
If you just cannot get your hands on fresh or frozen kaffir lime leaves, try the recipe without the ingredient or a substitute. If you still feel the recipe needs the flavor of kaffir lime leaves, I’d suggest trying the jarred kaffir leaves if you can get them or the kaffir lime essential oil as the best substitutes for kaffir lime leaves.
If you’ve never tried a dish that calls for the flavor of kaffir lime leaves or even if you’ve tried it before and didn’t care for it, find a recipe and try it. According to science, your taste buds renew and regenerate themselves every 10 to 14 days. You just may find that you acquire a taste for this unique flavor after trying Thai or Southeast Asian inspired dishes several times.